Monday, June 30, 2008

PAGAN CHRISTIANTY: by George Barna and Frank Viola

PAGAN CHRISTIANTY: by George Barna and Frank Viola


First a word of disclaimer. I know Frank Viola, indeed for some years he has asked me loads of good and telling questions via email. I did not really know what his take was on various matters, but I gladly answered his questions. It is interesting to me that this book appears to take no notice of various of these answers which I have given, nor are any of my works found in the bibliography at the end of the book. Perhaps I have missed something in the minutiae of the truly minute footnotes at the bottom of each page, but now I am wondering why exactly I have answered all those questions over the years. It’s a pity.

Frank Viola is a sharp person, but neither he nor George Barna really interact in this book with the scholarly literature that would call into question their strident claims and theses. They are arguing a particular case, and so they largely cite sources that support their case, for example Robert Banks’ work on Pauline house churches comes in for heavy usage. Their claim to present us with bare historical fact and to stand always on the Biblical high ground needs to be seen for what it is from the outset--- good and powerful rhetoric meant to warm the cockles of the hearts of all who affirm Sola Scriptura, but when one actually examines some of the major claims closely, they will not stand close and critical scrutiny.

I am quite sure that the immediate reaction of some to this book will be “Just what we need—another lambasting of the institutional church, by grandchildren of the radical Protestant reformation, sometimes called the Restoration Movement!” But we should all abide our soul in patience and hear the gentlemen out before deciding.

I personally knew we were in for trouble even from the beginning of the 2008 edition of this book when early on we are told that Isaiah died by being sawed in two. This may be in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (an early example of Protestant hagiography complete with myths, legends, half-truths, and yes some truth), but it is not in the Bible and we don’t have any historical evidence to verify it. So much for presenting us with “just the facts Mam, just the facts.”

From the first of this study we are also led to expect that the authors will play the role of Socrates, asking probing and critical questions and taking radical steps to help us live out the implications of the answers. They warn one and all, giving the caveat emptor, that if you follow them and their wisdom, be prepared to be ‘slandered, libeled, called names you never heard in the Bible…’ as that prescient prophet Paul Simon once sang. A martyr complex is never far behind when one is an anti-institutionalist.

And of course the big bad guy in Pagan Christianity is not going to be sin, suffering, the Devil, or any of those things. The big bad guy is going to be what is loosely called the Institutional Church and that other famous whipping boy—‘church tradition’ and oh yes--- Greek philosophy. The particular animus is against the Roman Catholic Church for paganizing Christianity. Dan Brown would have liked this book.

But frankly there are no such thing as ‘institutional churches’. Churches have institutions of various sorts, they aren’t institutions. Furthermore, the Bible is full of traditions and many of those developed after NT times are perfectly Biblical. It’s not really possible to draw a line in the sand between ‘Biblical principles’ and traditions. The question is which traditions comport with Biblical tradition and which do not. And there is a further problem. It is ever so dangerous to take what was normal in early Christianity as a practice, and conclude that therefore it must be normative. It may have been normal in the NT era for non-theological reasons, for example for practical reasons.

To tell us that the church is really people, people united in Christ and serving the Lord, is to say nothing for or against the ‘institutional church’, or for that matter its institutions. Everyone agrees that the church is people, more specifically people gathered for worship, fellowship, and service. Everyone agrees that the church is a living thing and organism, not an organization. So what’s the beef here, and where is the real thrust of the critique?

Let us begin with a historical point made on p. 6 on the basis of old and weak evidence. The idea is that Christianity had become overwhelming Gentile and already was adopting numerous pagan practices in the last third of the first century A.D. Frankly, this is historically false. Not only did Jewish Christianity continue well into the fifth century in many forms and places and in considerable numbers, including in the Diaspora and not just in Israel and Syria, in fact all of our NT was written by Jewish Christians with the possible exception of Luke's works, but he seems however to have been a god-fearer. And in fact many of the NT documents were written for Jewish Christians including Matthew, Hebrews, James, Jude,1 Peter, and probably John, the Johannine Epistles, Revelation.

If you are wrong about the history of the early church, and wrong about the character of the canon as well, then it is no wonder you will make mistakes in your argumentation. It is interesting that documents like the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Ascension of Isaiah, the Protoevangelium of James, and other documents which came out of largely Jewish Christian circles are just ignored as well. These folks need to read a book like Oscar Skarsaune’s edited volume on Jewish Believers in Jesus. They will discover it is not possible to say either that Jewish Christianity waned after 70 A.D. nor is it possible to say that the dominate practice of the church was pagan, and became increasingly pagan in the first, second, third centuries--- wrong, and wrong.

They could have saved themselves a lot of trouble by reading sources more recent than Will Durant and Shirley Case, neither of which represent the state of the discussion on such matters in the last 50 years. They also need to read Paul Trebilco’s major study on Ephesus and the church in that region.

One thing about these folks--- Barna and Viola are very sure of themselves. They warn the reader early on (p. 7) that you will be confronted by unshakeable historical fact which will rock your world. If however it’s like the ‘facts’ on pp. 6-7 about the rise of pagan Christianity, we are not dealing with ‘facts’, unfortunately. We are dealing with a misreading of early Christian history.

One of the odder features of the book Pagan Christianity which surfaces immediately in the first real chapter is the attempt to see early Christianity as rather like Melchizedek (‘without antecedents, without succesors’), and so basically something entirely unique and different from either early Judaism or other sorts of ancient religions. Ttis conclusion involves not just an assertion about a difference in theology but a difference in praxis as well.

We are given the usual litany about Christians meeting in homes, and how they did not have church buildings. This is of course partially true, so far as we can tell, but frankly they didn’t just meet in homes, nor were there any mandates for them to do so saying “in order to be truly Christian thou shalt meet in cramped quarters.” They also met in Solomon’s Portico, which is to say in the Temple precincts as the early chapters of Acts informs us, and furthermore they went to synagogue services in purpose built buildings, and furthermore they occasionally rented halls, like the Hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus, and later in the first century, as the archaeological evidence makes clear, they met in caves, namely the catacombs in Rome, as well. I don’t see much of a movement in the church today to go back to cave dwelling J

The authors of this book are right to critique the modern western church for having an edifice complex, and spending too much money on buildings and too little on missions, evangelism, other forms of ministry. But there is absolutely nothing in the NT which either suggests or requires that Christians should only meet in homes. And furthermore, the major problem with these sorts of arguments are that they ignore the differences in social setting, then and now.

Christians met in homes so often and for so long because they were part of an ‘illegal religion’ a ‘superstitio’ as the Roman’s called it. They did not meet in public because they wanted to meet in peace, and in freedom. It isn’t because they thought ‘small group house church ministry is cool or Biblical’.

Nor is it true, that Christianity was the first non-Temple based religion in antiquity. There were plenty of tribal religions in the ANE that could not afford and did not have Temples, or priests. They did sometimes have ‘high places’ where they would offer sacrifices, as the OT mentions.

It is not enough to say that NT theology indicates that it was Christ who was the perfect sacrifice, who is our high priest, and who fulfilled the function of temples did away with all such things. What one would have to argue is that Jesus came saying “I came that you might not have buildings any more”. Church buildings are not, and frankly probably shouldn’t be called temples because literal sacrifices are not offered in them. Sacrifices of praise and self-sacrificial offerings yes, real sacrifices no. This however does not in any way suggest that bodies of believers should not have purpose built buildings. That’s an example of over-egging the pudding, as the British would say, or as I would put it, over reading the evidence by a lot.

And this brings me to another of their claims— that there is no evidence of church buildings before A.D. 190 when they are mentioned by Clement of Alexandria. Wrong and wrong. Here again archaeology helps. If one goes to Capernaum one can see, through the glass floor of the modern church there, the ‘house of Peter’, which was expanded into a Christian meeting place. It was no longer just a home, it was enhanced so it could be a better place of worship—house becomes church building, so to speak. How do we know this? Because of the Christian graffiti in the walls left by Christians, some of which goes back at least to the early second century, and probably back to sometime after 70 A.D. when both Jews and Christians relocated, and one of the places they went was Capernaum.

Then too, one should compare the recent news reports that in Jordan by the river they have found perhaps the very earliest church structure—associated with the 70 and possibly even dating from the late first century. My point is this--- early Christians did not have an allergic reaction to buildings, not even to purpose built buildings. It was the social situation which dictated what it was wise and prudent to do about housing Christian meetings in that era, not some theological principle. It is not helpful to say, “until 300 there were no buildings first built as churches”, unless you add “until the 4th century Christianity was illegal!”

What about the argument that early Christianity did not have a priestly class? This appears to be largely correct, but they did indeed have elders, deacons, apostles, overseers/episokopoi. There are several NT documents that talk about the priesthood of all believers—1 Peter and Revelation, for example. You will notice that in 1 Peter as well Peter does not say ‘I am just one of the priesthood of all believers’. No, he begins his letter by introducing himself in the same manner as Paul did—as an apostle of Jesus Christ. In other words, when he talked about his ministerial roles, he refers to himself as an apostle.

If you look closely at the priesthood of all believers material in the NT it becomes clear that this terminology was used in relationship to the new spiritualized way of looking at sacrifices as we see in Rom. 12 or Heb. 13.15. It has nothing to do with the leadership structure of those churches, so far as I can tell. Nowhere does the NT say “since we have a priesthood of all believers we no longer affirm the role of set apart ministers or as they later came to be called ‘clergy’”.

In other words the priesthood of all believers is in no way an argument against their being ordained leaders of various sorts in the church, leaders who are both anointed and appointed not from below but from above, appointed by leaders.

There is frankly no Baptist or low church Protestant ecclesiology to be found in the NT in regard to this particular matter. Paul for example instructs his co-workers Timothy and Titus to appoint elders. The elders do not appoint themselves, nor do congregations get together and ordain or appoint them much less vote on them. The ecclesial structure of the NT church was hierarchial, not congregational—it started with the apostles and the 12 at the top, worked its way down to the co-workers of the apostles who were also itinerant and over multiple congregations, then there were the local church leaders—prophets, teachers, elders, deacons etc. In the early second century the apostolate seems to have been succeeded by bishops, most especially monarchial bishops like Ignatius of Antioch (read his letters sometime from the first 2 decades of the second century. They are quite revealing.). In short, the priesthood of all believers neither rules out nor negates the fact that there was an ecclesial leadership structure in the early church which involved in various cases a process of ordination from higher officials. To say otherwise is to misread the NT evidence. Of course it is true that what determined who had which gifts and graces was the work of the Spirit, but the Church needed to recognize that work and affirm it, and this took place through leaders who saw the gift in people like Timothy, and did from time to time use a process of ordination to make clear whom the Spirit had gifted and graced.

On p. 14 we are told that when Christianity was born, it was the only religion that had no sacred objects, spaces, or persons. This actually ignores the fact that Christians continued to meet with Jews in synagogues, until and unless they were expelled. Even the apostle to the Gentile went and worshipped with Jews in synagogues until he was expelled. It does not appear that even Paul thought there was something inherently inappropriate when it came to Christians attending a synagogue service in a building.

I must admit I was also surprised by the bold claim that there were no sacred persons. Actually I would say there were no other kinds of Christians in the church. This is precisely why they are called hagioi or ‘holy ones’ repeatedly, even in Paul’s letters. One of the major mistakes made in this book repeatedly, is assuming that Pauline and Gentile Christianity and its various forms and functions was the only form of Christianity in existence in the middle and latter half of the NT era itself, along with which comes the corollary assumption that Pauline house churches must be the models for all churches today. This does not follow.

This brings up another oddity about the argument being made in the first main chapter of the book. Just because a building was not called a temple, would not mean to early Christians that it was not a sacred building. Jews of course called various of their sacred buildings synagogues, and what is interesting about this is that James, the very brother of Jesus, in James 2.2, as he writes to Jewish Christians all over the Diaspora refers to their meeting place as a synagogos. This is not a reference to a non-Christian meeting place, as James 2.1 makes perfectly clear. Could it be a reference to just the meeting itself, rather than the place of meeting? While this is not totally impossible, it is certainly unlikely since the term already referred to buildings in the first century A.D. in various places in the Holy Land where James lived. There were already synagogue buildings in Jerusalem itself whilst James was the head of the Jerusalem church.

At the bottom of p. 15 we are told that Christians began reverencing the dead in the late second or third century. Actually this practice is already in evidence in the fifties A.D. and is referred to by Paul in 1 Cor. 15 when he talks about proxy baptism for the dead (for more on this see my Conflict and Community in Corinth, ad loc). I would suggest that Paul knows he is dealing with partially socialized Christians coming from a pagan background, who simply brought such practices into the church already in the mid-first century. The so-called paganizing of the Church was not instigated by Roman Catholics. It came much earlier, and in fact it was largely rejected by the church.

Like Dan Brown’s novel, the Da Vinci Code, Constantine is painted as ‘Bad Bart’ the person who messed things up in Pagan Christianity. He is called on p.18 the father of the church building, which is giving him far too much credit. He did of course take Christianity off the illicit religion list, and he and his mother became the patrons of the building of various churches including in the Holy Land, but it is simply false to say that there were no church buildings long before Constantine. It will not do to make him the bad guy who ruined pristine and pure early Christianity.

On p. 19 we also have the suggestion that Constantine was the one who originated the idea of Christians having a holy day, or a day of rest, that day being Sunday. While Constantine certainly made it a legal holy day, Christian’s had been meeting on the Lord’s Day for worship for a long time prior to that time. We see this alluded to in 1 Cor. 16 when Paul refers to setting money aside ‘on the first day of the week’ which is when they would have gathered to do this, among other Christian activities. Even more importantly we hear about the Lord’s day on which John had a vision in Rev. 1.10. There is also the very telling reference to Christians meeting on the first day of the week, Sunday, in Pliny’s famous letter to the Emperor Trajan. But I need to emphasize again, many Christians well into the middle ages were Jews, and so far as we can tell, they continued to think that there were such things as holy days. Paul’s discussion of the matter in Rom.14.5-6 should be quoted: “some regard one day more sacred than another; others consider everyday alike. Everyone should be convinced in their own mind. Those who regard one day as special do so unto the Lord. In other words, while Christian practice varied on this matter in the 50s, Paul has no problems with the person who regards one day as sacred or special unto the Lord. Indeed he sees it as an appropriate form of worship.

Some of the critique of Constantine is of course warranted, especially when one begins to study in depth the theology of holy relics. But a theology of holy time and holy persons, and even holy space already existed, not only in the OT, which is of course part of the Christian’s Bible, but in NT Christianity as well. I have detailed a length what the NT says about the Lord’s Supper, and how it indeed was seen as a sacrament that had to be partaken of in a worthy manner, or one could actually fall ill as 1 Cor. 11 says. This can be seen in my Making a Meal of It, and so I will not belabor that point here.

One of the worst things that can happen to persons who are anti-institutionalists, and anti-sacramentalists, is that so angry are they about the excesses and bad theology that has sometimes come out of the ‘institutional church’ that they throw the baby right out with the sacramental baptismal waters. I understand this, but it is a colossal over-reaction. Desacralizing worship, the Lord’s Supper, and even persons is not something devout Christians should be about. The last thing the church needs is a more casual, less reverential approach to all these things which removes altogether the recognition that one is entering into the presence of the Holy One when one comes to worship, the One in whose presence we too become sanctified, something that happens through encountering God through prayers, praise, songs, sacraments, and of course the preaching as well. It is the living presence of God that we encounter in any and all true worship, whether through mediated means or directly.

Worship and a theology of worship which trivializes the sacred, the holy, is not the theology of worship offered in books like Hebrews and Revelation and 1 Corinthians in the NT. Mystery is not the same as magic, any more than miracle is the same as magic. Magic is when humans try to manipulate the divine for their benefit. Mystery and miracle is when God comes down, and we touch the hem of his garment and are healed, helped, sanctified, whether that touch comes through hearing the Word, or receiving the Lord’s Supper, or singing a meaningful hymn or song or offering a prayer. It can come in a myriad of means, and thank goodness it does often come in mediated ways, because like Moses at the burning bush, if we reach out to touch God directly, as an unholy person, we may well experience ‘burn out’ even ‘ministerial burnout’.

There is nothing wrong with, nor unBiblical about worshipping God in a way that strongly suggests the special nature of the occasion, the great mystery and majesty of God, and some of the things that help with that are candles, and stained glass windows, and organs, and processions, and all manner of things that proclaim—“I am coming into the presence of the holy one, and I should give God my best.” In fact, worship is the time when all of creation bows down before God, and all of creation should be offered up to God—including our best music, our best words, our best attitudes, our best art, and so on should be offered up to God.

It is a mistake to think that Jesus instituted some sort of pristine primitive religion, that was iconoclastic in nature. Jesus also worshipped in the synagogues. Jesus also worshipped in the temple (see Lk. 2.41-52). What Jesus despised was the corruption of the holy, not its representation in material form. It is no accident that it was the money changers and animal salesmen that he attacked in the outer courts of the Temple. These had been recent additions to the Temple precincts in his lifetime.

And notice what he says. He quotes the OT and calls the Temple “the house of God” which humans have corrupted and turned into a “den of bandits” (Mk. 11). Jesus does not say the Temple is not the house of God! He says that this particular Herodian temple is the ‘temple of doom’ because of its corruption, and in Jn. 2 he alludes to the fact that he himself will be the focal point of future worship, calling himself and his body the Temple (he is not referring to the body of believers in John 2). Nothing in any of this theology of Jesus suggests we should never have sacred buildings or spaces thereafter. What we are told is that Christians should focus on Christ who is both temple and sacrificial lamb and high priest. That, is a matter of Christology and worship focus, not a matter of architectural plan or policy.

I quite agree with the statement that space is never empty it always embodies a meaning, and also the remark that where a body of believers meets affects the character of the church. So let us think about that for a moment. Suppose the church met in the bathroom in homes. Well, it would probably be a very small meeting, and gender specific as well, unless the home had two bathrooms. At least one of the sacraments might happen during worship in that space J But it certainly wouldn’t make it anything special, indeed someone would protest that it was inappropriate. Why? Because of course a bathroom is not a holy place by and large. How about in the living room? Certainly better, and less unholy for sure. But what this whole line of thinking suggests is that there are indeed more and less holy spaces. And frankly, I find it much easier to worship where the space and place reminds me to take my shoes off, put away all unholy thought, because I have entered into the presence of a holy God. An ordinary space connotes an ordinary activity, nothing special. A casual space connotes a casual activity, nothing special. A special space connotes something else entirely.

Some time ago, I was in Rome ending a wonderful tour of Greece and Italy. We had been pilgrims going and seeing various wonderful Biblical and later Christian sites. We finished by worshipping 150 feet underground in a catacomb. In the barreled vault of an alcove there were niches all the way up where Christians had been buried. We sang “for all the saints who from their labors rest”, a great modern hymn of the church and it rang with an amazing echo. We took communion together in that sacred space, and it was one of the greatest worship experiences any of us had every had, before or since, I imagine. We sensed we were celebrating with the saints above in heaven who had been buried there, just as the saints in heaven are described as participating in worship in Rev. 4. God was glorified and we certainly were edified and sanctified.

Far be it from me to suggest this is the only way or place God can be glorified and the saints edified. But it is certainly one legitimate godly and non-pagan way. God of course can be worshipped in simplicity as well. I remember well the wonderful accapella singing at Abilene Christian worship time at Abilene Christian University. It was simple yet profound, and profoundly beautiful —indeed wherever and however God is worshipped in Spirit and in truth, it is true worship. In my view worship is where beauty and truth and goodness and holiness should all meet, and kiss.

My point in the above critique is simply this--- calling more high church worship ‘pagan’ is not only a tragedy which impoverishes the soul. It’s a travesty. And saying over and over again that there is not a shred of Biblical evidence for sacred buildings, particularly church buildings reflects both historical myopia and bad theological analysis of a theology of holiness and worship. Such a view is narrow where the Bible is not narrow, and it fails to grasp the great breadth of ways in which God can be truly, and Biblically worshipped and served, and is indeed worshipped and served around the world every single week. We do not need to be liberated from holy worship—we need to be liberated in and by it, in whatever form it may legitimately take. And that’s the Biblical truth.


CP said...

Ben, thankyou. After such a honest and solid critique of this book not much more can be said to you.

Rob Namba said...

This thoughtful and informed analysis is very helpful. Thank you. As one who participates in a house church and finds it wonderfully life-giving, I appreciate the reminder to not thrown the baby out with the bath water.

Danny Zacharias said...

I think this is the best blog post you've ever done BW3. Lots of good stuff to chew on

paul said...

Thanks Ben. Actually, I'm tired of "anti-institutionalism" and all that goes with it. Thanks for the insight.

Ted M. Gossard said...

This is helpful. Thanks, Dr. Witherington!

Ben Witherington said...

And I have no problems at all with people being involved in house churches. I am glad for any form of life giving church. But I have participated in too many forms of doing church all around the world to ever believe that this is the only way to do it, or even necessarily this is the best way for most to do, and I am certainly unconvinced it is 'the one true Biblical way to do it'.



Hayne Begley said...

I completely agree with your critique. I was raised Southern Baptist, attended a Baptist university, and after graduation began attending an AMIA church. It was the blending of Liturgy and evangelism that drew me there and keeps me there.

Thank you for always being willing to speak the truth, humbly and with grace to all.


pwatch said...

My wife and I spent almost 2 years doing "house church" after over 40 years in the pentecostal and charismatic arenas. I so wanted house churches to be the key for us, only to finally admit we became exhausted and frustrated trying to find what we sought was not what history evidenced. Our long investigation - a wonderfully beautiful journey - ended with us finding our true heritage. We left the world of Viola, Barna, and the nay-sayers of anything but the casual, leaderless, free style, everyone is right, etc. world of house churches. Haven't look back since!

Marc Axelrod said...

Is this the Frank Viola who used to pitch for the Twins? Sounds like he was a better pitcher then than he is now.
Marc said...

Prof. Witherington,

This has been really educational for me. Thanks for the write up.


matthew said...

Great review! I have read the book thoroughly and have used each chapter as a discussion starter in my Sunday School class AND in my men's group. Sometimes we, as a group, come to agree with Viola/Barna and other times (probably the majority of the time) we come to disagree (at least with his overstatement). Nevertheless, the book has accomplished its goal in that it's caused us to ask the hard questions and look at things with a fresh perspective.

Bethel said...

We should be thankful we have Ben's insightful and incisive pen.

The portion about the Sacred Holiness of our worship really struck home. Some our contemporary worship lacks the sense of an awesome majesty of our God. We will do well to remember our God is both a Consuming Fire and a Gentle Savior.

If there is indeed a special place and day, set aside unto God (i.e. Holy), we should also reclaim the things we consider secular, like our work for instance, into holiness. Therefore while there are indeed sacred and special encounters with our God, holiness should pervade in increasing measure into our 'secular' world as well as the Kingdom work advances.

Keith Tan

Living the Biblios said...

BW#3 said: ..."it is not possible to say either that Jewish Christianity waned after 70 A.D. nor is it possible to say that the dominate practice of the church was pagan, and became increasingly pagan in the first, second, third centuries--- wrong, and wrong."

Golly, what will Viola and Barna say next about the later church councils and their declarations on the nature of Jesus and especially the Trinity?

Forgive me if I'm the only one, but I don't get how Barna, who spends his life researching the church, comes to these conclusions. To me, it puts an asterisk on his social science research.

Matt Guthrie said...

Thanks for this post. I really appreciate the way you keep folks like me in touch with the latest trends, scholarship, etc. now that I'm long out of seminary.

I especially appreciate your thoughtful analysis of this book and "typical" house church philosophies. As an ordained minister who envisions a network of home churches that encompasses all that is right about the brick and mortar church AND the house church, hopefully without either set of shortcomings, this is very helpful.

Your movie reviews aren't bad either ;-)

Matt said...

Is this really from the Restoration movement perspective, as in the Stone-Campbell movement? I was wondering what that comment meant about "not just another one of those..."

Thanks for writing this and sorry you didn't get any credit.

Phil Miller said...

When I read the book, I didn't get the impression that the authors were saying their way was the only way, but I do see how it could come across like that. I did realize there were some issues with the history they were using, as it was very selective to fit the message.

I guess I thought the book was more positive than negative because it does ask good questions. I think we all read these things through a different lense, and as somebody who had been burnt by church leadership through the years, I tend to come down on the side of a less top-heavy leadership style.

I do think the one weakness of the book is that the authors tend to ignore the causes of why the church did some of the things it did. For example, there was a reason bishops were needed, and it wasn't all because of a power trip. Sure there were abuses of authority, and there always will be. That can even happen in a house church.

You can probably tell from the nature of my comment that I'm still wrestling with some of these issues. I can't say I know exactly what a church should look like, or what the ideal is. I guess I just want something real.

Leslie said...

I agree with much of what you have said, and one of the things I have noticed about these types of things is that they have a tendency of being very inconsistent. That is, they pick and choose where and how they want to use a certain hermeneutic. It's frustrating and usually ends up being divisive. There is one point I must disagree with you on, however.

The elders do not appoint themselves, nor do congregations get together and ordain or appoint them much less vote on them.

True, of course - the elders do not appoint themselves, and indeed there may not have been some kind of "vote", but if I understand what you are saying correctly, I believe you go to far concerning the role of the congregation. Take for example Acts 6. Here the apostles have actually put the decision of who to appoint into the hands of the congregation. So, the men were chosen by the congregation and brought back to the apostles (v.6) who did the official appointing. Similarly, in Acts 13:1ff, we see Paul and Barnabas sent off, but the Spirit spoke not to Paul or Barnabas directly, but through members of the church at Antioch. Even the choosing of Timothy himself seems to have started first with the evaluation of the congregation in Lystra and Iconium. So given the important role of the congregations in Acts, and their prior approval of a man/men for leadership, why would we assume that Timothy or Titus would go into a place and do the job themselves? Indeed, they are told to go in and appoint elders, but this is done in collaboration with the congregations, not as rulers over them. In fact, this goes well with what we learn from Celement of Rome, in 1 Clem. 44.3 - "Those who were thus appointed by them, or afterwards by other men of good repute, with the consent of the whole Church..." Now, we may be directed to Acts 14:23, where it does appear on the surface that Paul and Barnabas are doing the appointing without any involvement of the congregation. But again, given what we see in other verses, taking this to mean that they did it without the involvement of the congregation seems inappropriate. It seems best to understand these leaders doing the "official consecration" if you will, rather than doing it all on their own. The congregations of the first century were deeply involved in the choosing of their leadership, as far as I can tell.

Unknown said...


My first time here. Excellent review of "Pagan Christianity." I consider myself more informed than the average yokel on church history. It is gratifying that someone (i.e. you) who clearly knows more than I do came to the same conclusion about this book that I did. I guess Barna and Viola mean well, but, despite their copious footnotes, their sources are very limited and very slanted. I put the book down after reading the chapter on baptism, which completely ignores a ton of archeological evidence that really muddies the waters (HAH!) of the case they were trying to make. Thanks.

Unknown said...

You stated, "... Jesus also worshipped in the synagogues. Jesus also worshipped in the temple (see Lk. 2.41-52)...It is no accident that it was the money changers and animal salesmen that he attacked in the outer courts of the Temple. These had been recent additions to the Temple precincts in his lifetime."

Jesus was a Jew and at the time of his dwelling on earth man could not come into God's presence; thus, the purpose of the temple in Jerusalem. That is where man was to "meet" with God. Actually man couldn't even "meet" with God. Only the high priest once a year was allowed into God's presence.

You seem to still be stuck in the Old Covenant. In the new covenant we are allowed to enter into God's presence and eternal rest. Christ came to restore the presence of God unto man. This was physically demonstrated through the destruction of the temple in AD 70 when God did away with the OC and its "heaven and earth". God no longer dwells in man-made temples, he dwells in man. Man is God's temple. Do you not hear Paul's words? Jesus himself couldn't have stated it any better when he said "the hour is coming [future] when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father...But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."

You stated, "What Jesus despised was the corruption of the holy, not its representation in material form."

Again, at the time (OC times) the temple was the representation in material form because it represented God’s presence. So, yeah, of course Jesus would object to the representation of it in material form.

One would also have to ask then why did God destroy the temple? God should have left it to give man the best "Church" of all to worship Him in. But, he didn't for a reason! God does not dwell in man-made buildings. He destroyed it to show and tell us He does not want to be put in a build made by man! He made his own dwelling place, the real Church (body of Christ)! Of course you'll surely give lip service in saying that that is not what a Church building is/does, but reality shows you incorrect.

One of the facts the Church constantly likes to stress to its members is, "we as Christians are not just Christians on Sunday. When we leave this "building" we are still Christians." Why does the Church have to constantly stress this? Because it says one thing yet creates the physical reality to the contrary. So, of course man naturally acts out on this false reality we create by throwing God back into a building (temple). And the Church wonders whey most Christians live one way on Sunday and another during the week. They don’t understand who they are because the institutional Church creates and sets a false example. Heck, we even call these buildings "God's House". Is it any wonder man treats them as such, and acts as if they are?

This man-made separation carries over into every aspect of man. Just one example is politics. How many times have we heard to "keep God in the Church (referring to the building), and out of Government"? If we didn't have buildings (temples) where we put God, the world would know he dwells in man, thus it would be clear it's impossible to separate the two. Where man goes, God goes. But, the body of Christ doesn’t even get this because we’ve engrained the idea that the Church building is where God dwells.

I think Frank did a great job. Sure another book could be written showing the Biblical reasons for not having buildings and all the damage it does to the Body of Christ, but he limited it to what he did. Hopefully in the future he’ll write another. At least I hope he does.

David Nyström said...

Brilliant critique, thank you!

Jeff said...

Thank you for your review of the book. I have seen it mentioned in various places and was thinking of reading it, but I will put it a little further toward the back burner. At least until I have a break in coursework.
I also wanted to thank you for your books. I have read a couple of your books about Baptism and the Lord's Supper and found them very helpful and insightful.

Skybalon said...

As a church elder, professor in a Christian university (if things other than people can be Christian), and even simply as a member in a body of worship, I am part of the institution, and don't find that in itself problematic, though this doesn't mean I say it is without problems.
I think your criticisms of the sloppiness of the text sound right but I also think the critique that the text would hope to make is unnecessary or creates a controversy where there need not be one. "Everyone agrees that the church is a living thing and organism, not an organization. So what’s the beef here, and where is the real thrust of the critique?" Well stated.
That said, I think there is another point that can be made- it's not necessarily a point you ought to make, you may disagree. But it is a point behind the text and your critique.
Don't we organize, don't we formalize our relations, doesn't what we do become what we ought to do and so the what we ought to do- the form of it- becomes the standard by which we know if we are worshipping properly? I am not suggesting it ought to be that way, but anyone who has had to live through arguments over sanctuary paint color, what time worship services "should" start, musical accompaniment, sandals on the feet of those "up front," who gets to pray, who gets to preach, and on and on ad infinitum, ad nauseam- literally- knows it is this way.
It's central to your assessment that we "have" an institution rather than "are" an institution but I would say we no more simply have an institution as the church than we simply have a body as a person. The formalized relations of the body are the institution whether they are found in the hierarchy of Catholicism or the "who gets/has to do what" of a house church.
The challenge does not seem to be proving whether or not Constantine ruined Christianity, how syncretistic Christianity has or has not been, whether bishops or elders rule, or whether that distinction makes sense to us now. I suggest that when we are asking those queestions, we are asking the wrong questions, much like asking whether it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not. Whether or not we are an institution seems irrelevant. I agree- what's the beef indeed. The challenge seems to be in how we properly relate to those relations (wink). How do we keep them in proper perspective?
I worry that saying we don't have an institution may invite a sense that we have nothing to fear of institutionalization because for us, it's merely organization. Call it what we like, those concretized relations can be given as idolatrous a hold on us as anything and it sounds like the Barna-Viola text has nothing helpful to say in that regard.

Bill Heroman said...

...I have participated in too many forms of doing church all around the world to ever believe that this is the only way to do it, or even necessarily this is the best way for most to do, and I am certainly unconvinced it is 'the one true Biblical way to do it'.

Amen, Ben. There has never been just one way to 'do church' and there's nothing special about being in a house. But did you find a place in Frank's book where he suggested any of those things? If so, could you point it out for us? Also, since most of your citations were early, I have to ask: have you finished the book yet? If not, I sincerely hope we can look forward to more of your thoughts on the rest of its content.

Your post raised many good points, of course. I hope Frank will consider them strogly.

Romans 14:5-6 is what nails it for me, but then, many house churchers are not met with the same amount of grace by their former pastors or by brothers and sisters who support the traditional 'institutions'. While I readily confess that house church is far too often so much less than what it aims to be, I do deeply wish that more folks would give it a try - or at least offer other believers as much grace to try it as you seem to offer. In that spirit, I'm excited to hope more people will read Frank's book for themselves, and give it at least as much thought as you have so far.

Thanks for the post.

Chris E W Green said...

Isn't it ironic (really, not in the Alanis Morisette sense) that the anti-institutionalism Viola and Barna spout is itself so thoroughgoingly - pagan? It is chillingly gnostic-y with its hard-and-fast separation of essence and form.

I don't know how, but they've altogether missed the meaning(s) of the in-carnal-ation and bodily resurrection of Christ! Nevermind the fact of their poor historical research.

I once had a brief email exchange with F. Viola about this; his response: You obviously have an investment in the institutional church and so cannot see clearly what it is Scripture is saying. No doubt, Ben, he would say the same to you. As you say, he and GB are invulnerably sure of themselves.

C.P.O. said...

Thanks for this thorough review of the book! It's extremely helpful to hear a scholarly perspective on that particular book and the assumptions that lie behind it. In my recent dealings with house church people, I have been impressed with their passion, but less convinced with their ideas that the Bible mandates size, place, and style of church (i.e. small, in a house, intimate, and w/o paid leaders).

I have just one quibble with the review, in the portion where you talk about the hierarchical nature of the ecclesial structure in the NT. I think it's hard to argue with the importance of the apostles in the early church, and the deference that was given them. I guess my problem comes more with the idea of "hierarchy" as definitive of NT ecclesial structure. Take Acts 15 and the decision making process there about how to deal with theological conflicts that had arisen in various churches. You certainly see set-apart leaders there (apostles, elders), but I guess I would describe the process there as more consensus-oriented, flat, and participatory, than relying on a hierarchy and all that that implies.

Unknown said...

Though this book rightly deserves a harsh critique (evidence by Dr. Witherington), it is good for those of us so intertwined in modern American Christianity to realize that not all we do is "biblical." Though many of our practices (buildings, choir, dressing up, CEOs, tithing) are not "biblical," this doesn't mean they are evil or wrong.

The problem with one side is thinking that all they do is "biblical" when it is clearly not, and then the problem of the other side is to denounce all modern church practices b/c they are not "biblical."

So, this book has some bright spots, though Viola needs to realize a few things of his own. He seems to be more of a conspiracy theorist than an honest exegete and scholar.

Chris E W Green said...


I appreciate your concerns, but I don't think the NT presents an anti-hierarchicalism any more than an anti-institutionalism or anti-sacramentalism. The opposite is nearer the truth, in fact.

Besides the exegetical/historical question, however, I'm not sure why people fear institution and hierarchy. I suspect it has more to do with Enlightenment individualism than it does with "biblical" principles.

Even in Acts 15 - which I would be careful using as an archetype for ecclesial structure - aren't the apostles the ones who speak decisively to the issues?

Certainly, high-ranking ecclesial officials should remain open to their brothers and sisters in the Christian community, recognizing that in the community as such the Spirit is at work. But who disagrees with that?

graham old said...


Have you read the book all of the way through? I only ask because you repeat some of the criticisms that I've heard from people who haven't actually read the book.

They state, more than once, that they are not saying there is only one model of church.

One of the most interesting things with discussions about this book is that they complain about the dogmatic tone and then offer equally strong opinion in their reviews/comments. I actually suspect - given the questions at the end, questions on the website and emails with Frank - that Viola and Barna actually come across as more close-minded than they actually are.

Banshee said...

Um... Isaiah getting sawed in two is indeed in the Bible. Hebrews 11:37.

Ben Witherington said...

Heb. 11.37 says 'they got sawed in half'. It says nothing about Isaiah as a singular prophet, and in case there is no personal reference here to any particular prophet.

sh said...

"Sacrifices of praise and self-sacrificial offerings yes, real sacrifices no."

how can you say the anti-type is not real?

animal sacrifices, NO

real sacrifices, yes

Jon Zens said...


For years I have deeply appreciated your insightful studies, especially concerning the cultural settings of Jesus, Paul, the church and women. You have truly opened some crucial gates for better understanding and applying the New Testament documents.
Your review of Pagan Christianity (PC hereafter), however, was quite disappointing. It didn’t breathe the same careful and unbiased air that your published works do. It rather gave the clear impression that you hadn’t read the entire book, and that what you did read, you didn’t read very carefully. I think this opened you up to making some of the mistakes in your review which I will outline below. Furthermore, the authors have already answered many of your objections quite satisfactorily at The interviews with Barna and Viola are particularly helpful. I suggest you and your readers take the time to read and listen to them.
You begin by mentioning that your works were not found in the bibliography of PC and that you somehow had expected them to be. However, in some of Frank’s other books he does in fact make reference to your writings and contributions. It is my understanding, therefore, that Frank’s questions to you were not about the subjects in PC, but about issues relating to his other works, particularly his book, The Untold Story of the New Testament Church, which is a popular narrative of the first-century church. Your work is cited there a good bit.

It’s clear from some of PC’s footnotes and acknowledgements that Frank has consulted many competent historians on his research for the book (some of whom obviously disagree with you on certain points). PC is primarily a historical work. Since you are a NT scholar, and not a church historian, one wouldn’t expect you to be consulted for the material in this particular work.

The thrust of your critique seems to lie in your assertion that the authors don’t deal with the scholarly literature of those who disagree with their conclusions. It implies and wrongly assumes that they were, at best, ignorant of such literature or, at worst, were less than honest in discussing it.

A careful reading of the source material and the bibliography of PC demonstrates that they were well aware of “the scholarly literature that would call into question their strident claims and theses,” and were not persuaded by them. The bibliography alone contains hundreds of books showing a wide breath of the subjects at hand, many of which were written by scholars and historians who disagree with some of the authors' conclusions. The book shows keen familiarity, for example, with two well-known liturgical scholars, Frank Senn and Gregory Dix and their work – scholars who disagree with some of the authors’ conclusions.

Furthermore, a good number of the sources they use were written by Anglican and Catholic scholars who admit that various practices they embrace are of pagan origin; yet these scholars still uphold and defend their present form of church. (Barna and Viola go a step further and challenge some of those practices on biblical, spiritual, and pragmatic grounds. And then leave it to the reader decide if those practices are a help or a hindrance to what Jesus had in mind for His church.)

Very simply, it was not within the scope of the book to examine the claims and counter-claims that others have made. The book states this very point in the preface, arguing that if they had dealt with every counter-claim and traced every practice in detail (making it a “scholarly” work), it would have consisted of many volumes that few people would read. I think that one reason that PC has become a bestseller is that it is so accessible to the average reader.

PC was concerned to boil things down to the key issues related the shift from New Testament simplicity to post-apostolic bureaucracy. I’ve been studying “church” issues for thirty years, and it would be my conclusion that PC accurately reflects the basic conclusions – even virtual consensus -- of a wide range of NT theologians and church historians.

For example, it would appear that James D.G. Dunn’s summary remarks capture the essence of PC’s heartbeat:

Increasing institutionalism is the clearest mark of early Catholicism - when church becomes increasingly identified with institution, when authority becomes increasingly coterminous with office, when a basic distinction between clergy and laity becomes increasingly self-evident, when grace becomes increasingly narrowed to well-defined ritual acts. We saw above that such features were absent from first generation Christianity, though in the second generation the picture was beginning to change (Unity & Diversity in the New Testament, Westminster Press, 1977, p.351).

Here are some other observations for you and your readers to consider:

1) In the beginning of your review, you say: "I personally knew we were in for trouble even from the beginning of the 2008 edition of this book when early on we are told that Isaiah died by being sawed in two. This may be in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (an early example of Protestant hagiography complete with myths, legends, half-truths, and yes some truth), but it is not in the Bible and we don’t have any historical evidence to verify it. So much for presenting us with ‘just the facts Mam, just the facts.’ "
I felt this was both a weak and misleading statement for two reasons. First, both Jewish and Christian traditions suggest that Isaiah was sawed in half. (Some believe this is alluded to in Hebrews 11:37.) This account is mentioned in the The Martyrdom of Isaiah, The Ascension of Isaiah, and the Talmud, for example. Just because it's extra-canonical doesn't mean it's untrue. Peter being crucified upside down is based on similar traditions. Yet authors frequently mention it without qualifying that it's based on tradition.
But second, and more importantly, this is an example of how it seems to me that a) your review doesn't provide hard proof to disprove the authors' specific statements (just because another author disagrees with one of their particular findings doesn't make it untrue or false), and b) your review reads too much into certain statements and disregards context. For instance, neither Barna nor Viola were trying to make a case for Isaiah's death in a specific manner, as those who haven’t read the book would easily assume by your review. It was a fleeting statement at best. Here's the exact statement in context.
Isaiah was sawn in half, John the Baptist was beheaded, and Jesus was crucified. Not to mention the thousands of Christians who have been tortured and martyred through the centuries by the institutional church because they dared to challenge its teachings (p. 4).
Therefore, to judge the whole book on that one statement, which does have some historical attestation, is quite an over-reach to say the least.
2) The authors do not suggest, as you have implied, that “house church” is the only form or model of church. In fact, if one reads the entire book, they will discover that the authors are quite critical of much that goes on in some house church circles today. Instead, they argue for something they call “the organic expression of the church,” which takes many different forms depending on culture and time, but which is always consistent with NT principles and the nature of God. In this regard, they issue various critiques on house churches in Chapter 11. On pages 240 and 241, they write:
Is “organic church” a synonym for “house church”? If not, what is the distinction? No, it is not a synonym. Some house churches are organic, while others are not. A number of present-day house churches are glorified Bible studies. Many others are supper-fests (the meetings revolve around a shared meal and that is about it). Some house churches are just as institutionalized as traditional churches—with a living room pulpit and chairs arranged in rows so attendees can listen to a forty five-minute sermon.
3) Much of what you have argued were points that the authors themselves agree with. For instance, in the book they never suggest that there is only one way to do church. In fact, the authors refute that very thought. They write:
The term organic church does not refer to a particular model of church. (We believe that no perfect model exists.) …. Note that our goal in this book is not to develop a full description of the organic church but only to touch on it when necessary.
4) They never suggest that it’s always wrong to use a building or that buildings are somehow inherently evil. Here’s a direct quote from them on this question:
Do you think it’s always wrong for a group of Christians to use a building for worship or ministry? Not at all. Paul rented a building (the Hall of Tyrannus) when he was in Ephesus, and the church of Jerusalem used the outer courts of the Temple for special gatherings. What we are establishing in this chapter are five key points: (1) it is unbiblical to call a building a “church,” “the house of God,” “the temple of God,” “the sanctuary of the Lord,” and other similar terms; (2) the architecture of the typical church building hinders the church from having open-participatory meetings; (3) it is unscriptural to treat a building as though it were sacred; (4) a typical church building should not be the site of all church meetings because the average building is not designed for face-to-face community; and (5) it is a profound error to assume that all churches should own or rent buildings for their gatherings. It is our opinion that each church should seek the Lord’s guidance on this question rather than assume the presence of a building to be the Christian norm. Tracing the history of the “church” building helps us to understand why and how we use them today.

5) You state: “There were plenty of tribal religions in the ANE that could not afford and did not have Temples, or priests.” The truth is, however, that the overwhelmingly vast majority of religions have been marked by the presence of, as John H. Yoder called him/her, “the religious specialist.” Yoder rightly observes:

There are few more reliable constants running through all human society than the special place every human community makes for the professional religionist . . . . in every case he disposes a unique quality, which he usually possesses for life, which alone qualifies him for his function, and beside which the mass of men are identifiable negatively as “laymen,” i.e., non-bearers of this special quality . . . . One person per place is enough to do what he needs to do . . . . the clergyman mediates between the common life and the realm of the “invisible” or the “spiritual” . . . . No one balks at what his services cost (“The Fullness of Christ,” reprinted in Searching Together, 11:3, 1982, pp.4-7).

As the authors argue in Chapter 5, the whole “clergy” tradition has no basis in the NT, and is one of the most enormous obstacles to the Body of Christ functioning as it should. Roman Catholic William Bausch makes these astute observations:

Our survey has shown us that no cultic priesthood is to be found in the New Testament. Yet we wound up importing Old Testament Levitical forms and imposing them on Christian ministry . . . . Nevertheless in practice there is no denying that there has historically been a gathering into one person and his office what were formerly the gifts of many . . . .[This practice] goes astray, of course, when it translates to mean that only ordination gives competence, authority, and the right of professional governance. It goes further astray when eventually all jurisdictional and administrative powers in the church come to be seen as an extension of the sacramental powers conferred at ordination. In short, there is a movement here away from the more pristine collaborative and mutual ministries of the New Testament (Traditions, Tensions, Transitions in Ministry, Twenty-Third Publications, 1982, pp. 54, 30).

6) You seem to totally miss the point when you say, “I was also surprised by the bold claim that there were no sacred persons.” This is one example of how you didn’t read the book very carefully. Of course, the authors affirm that all of God’s people are “holy ones.” They write:

In the minds of the early Christians, the people—not the architecture—constituted a sacred space ( p. 11).
What was meant is that in Christ’s kingdom there are no “holy persons,” in the sense Yoder described above the “religious expert” who is a notch above the “lay” people because of some special ceremony, often called “ordination.” In Chapter 5, they effectively argue that the NT never envisions a sacred priesthood or a sacred clergy that’s set apart as more holy than the rest of the body of Christ. Again, a careful reading of the whole book before you did your review would have avoided making this mistake.
7) The “recognition” of functions portrayed in the NT is a very far cry from the “ordination” to office that developed in post-apostolic times (cf. Marjorie Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View, Eerdmans, 1980). You seem to merge the two together as if they are organically connected. A number of scholars, like Warkentin and Banks, have uncovered some fresh thinking of what ordination was in the NT that flies in the face of traditional assumptions on the issue. PC treats this subject quite competently in Chapter 5, and it’s treated in more depth in the sequel, Reimagining Church.

8) “The ecclesial structure of the NT church was hierarchial.” It would seem that Jesus’ corrective remarks to the Twelve ruled out such a model of leadership – “not so among you.” There are many scholars who would differ with your conclusion. One example among many would be Herbert Haag, a Roman Catholic himself, whose examination of the evidence led him to assert:

In the Catholic Church there are two classes, clergy and laity . . . . This structure does not correspond to what Jesus did and taught. Consequently it has not had a good effect in the history of the Church . . . . Among his disciples Jesus did not want any distinction of class or rank . . . . In contradiction to this instruction of Jesus, a “hierarchy,” a “sacred authority,” was nevertheless formed in the third century (Upstairs, Downstairs: Did Jesus Want a Two-Class Church?, Crossroad, 1997, p.109).

Another author who asserts this position would be Kevin Giles. This concept is dealt with in great detail in the sequel to PC, which releases in August.

9) You suggest that the NT views the Lord’s Supper as a “sacrament,” but I do not think this is accurate. And many scholars would agree with me. As PC points out, the Lord’s Supper, as instituted by Jesus and practiced in the early church, was a meal together. Leonard Verduin gave a number of reasons why the transformation of a meal into a post-apostolic “sacrament” was retrogressive and connected to alien pagan influences (The Reformers & Their Stepchildren, Eerdmans, 1964, pp.137-142). As Vernard Eller noted, “the whole style of thought that goes along with the concept ‘sacrament’ is just plain foreign to the N.T.” (“The Lord’s Supper is Not a Sacrament,” Searching Together, 12:3, 1983, p.3).

10) You say: “They could have saved themselves a lot of trouble by reading sources more recent than Will Durant and Shirley Case, neither of which represent the state of the discussion on such matters in the last 50 years.” I feel this statement is misguided. First, the The Story of Civilization is the most successful historiographical series in history. Second, a look at the bibliography and the footnotes reveals that the authors also rely on more recent historians. And third, simply broad-brushing Durant as outdated without giving specifics as to where the authors cite him with incorrect information and how and where those statements have been refuted by all modern historians is not compelling at all. The fact is that the pieces of history that the authors cite from Durant are attested to by many other historians, both past and present.
11) I was surprised and taken back by your disparaging comment that "Dan Brown would have liked this book." That struck me as a cheap shot that I find ridiculous. It also suggests, underhandedly, that Barna and Viola are not interested in truth or are making things up. After reading your review combined with that statement, I thought to myself, “It could be said, then, that Pope Leo X would have liked Witherington’s review!" I say that based on your approach which I felt was largely made of argumentation that omitted important facts that would call your conclusions into question.
12) You rightly note, “The question is which traditions comport with Biblical tradition and which do not.” This is the very question the authors ask again and again. I believe that PC has done an admirable job of trying to sort out the general contours of organic church life reflected in the NT from the subsequent trappings that sapped the life out of the church. There is great liberty under the New Covenant. But surely we are not free to do “church” is any way we please. Surely not everything that calls itself “church” is really ekklesia. Aren’t we supposed to pay attention to the “apostolic traditions” contained in the NT? Should not our church practices be in harmony with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles and consistent with the nature of God? Is the acid test of any church form whether or not it fosters and cultivates NT values? Isn’t it safe to say that the great majority of post-apostolic traditions only served to move the church away from Christocentrality and NT simplicity? These are the central questions that PC asks.
13) You make a wrong assumption about what the authors mean by “institutional church.” Here is their definition from their own words:
This term refers to a religious system (not a particular group of people). An institutional church is one that operates primarily as an organization that exists above, beyond, and independent of the members who populate it. It is constructed more on programs and rituals than on relationships. It is led by set-apart professionals (“ministers” or “clergy”) who are aided by volunteers (“laity”).
14) Your statement that “Everyone agrees that the church is a living thing and organism, not an organization,” fails to reckon with the fact that history is replete with examples where institutionalization kills life. The truth is that many forms of church are out of sync with the DNA of the ekklesia. Many environments are hostile to organic life. PC rightly points out that there is good reason to question if the inherited ways of doing church are conducive to promoting the growth of living forms.

15) You assert: “Christians continued to meet with Jews in synagogues.” I see no evidence in the NT that Christian gatherings were held in synagogues. The times Paul and a few others visited synagogues was not to have a gospel-based gathering, but to proclaim Christ from the OT evangelistically.

16) The authors aren’t against tradition. In fact, they argue for what they call “the apostolic tradition” which is mentioned within the NT. Moreover, they don’t believe that a practice is wrong just because it may be post-apostolic or invented by pagan sources. They repeat this point throughout the book. They write:
The way in which we practice our faith can, indeed, affect the faith itself. Does that mean we must go back to the Bible and do everything exactly as the disciples did between AD 30 and 60? No. Social and cultural shifts over the last two thousand years have made it impossible to imitate some of the lifestyle and religious efforts of the early church. For example, we use cell phones, drive in automobiles, and utilize central heat and air. The first-century Christians had none of these forms of human convenience. Therefore, adhering to the principles of the New Testament does not mean reenacting the events of the first-century church. If so, we would have to dress like all first-century believers did, in sandals and togas! (p. xxxix).


The use of chairs and pile carpets in Christian gatherings has no biblical support either. And both were invented by pagans. Nonetheless, who would claim that sitting in chairs or using carpets is “wrong” simply because they are postbiblical inventions authored by pagans? The fact is that we do many things in our culture that have pagan roots. Consider our accepted calendar. The days of our week and the months of our year are named after pagan gods. But using the accepted calendar does not make us pagans (p. 74-75).

17) Keep in mind that the constructive side of the authors’ argument is only tangentially discussed in PC. Not much attention is given at all to defending what NT-based church life looks like. Nor is any attention given to refuting many of the counter-arguments to it. This is quite deliberate. Interestingly, I noticed that your review gives full attention to this matter, when the book doesn’t. This has created some obvious misunderstandings on what the authors fully believe about the subject.

The sequel called Reimagining Church which I, Leonard Sweet, Shane Claiborne, Alan Hirsch, Rad Zdero, John White, and others have heartily endorsed, does this very thing. In Len Sweet’s words, “In Reimagining Church, Frank Viola is at the top of his game, showing a serene, soaring mastery of the theology of church as organism rather than organization” (quoted from

Reimagining Church carefully refutes such popular concepts as hierarchical leadership structures in the church, official ordination, common myths about the purpose of the ekklesia meeting, et al., and it paints a compelling picture of organic church life that’s rooted firmly in the nature of God and NT principles. I hope that all of your blog readers will read both PC and Reimagining Church and analyze for themselves the merits of the arguments.

There are many other matters I could speak to in your review, but these will suffice for now. I will plan on responding to your “Part 2.”

In closing, I would like to make this observation that I would think should give us pause for serious reflection. In the period when the early church blossomed incredibly with divine love and spiritual power, it had no special buildings, no clergy, and no fixed ritual (cf. Graydon Snyder, First Corinthians: A Faith Community Commentary, Mercer, 1992, pp.248-249; William A. Beardslee, First Corinthians: A Commentary for Today, Chalice Press, 1994, pp.136-137). When church edifices, clergy and fixed rituals became prominent, the visible church became focused on perpetuating itself and lost the simplicity of Christ. This is why I believe the information in PC has appeared for such a time as this, when the Body of Christ needs to recapture a NT vision regarding the “new humanity” in Christ.

Given that PC is truly a ground-breaking book (no other book traces and documents the origins of our modern church practices, nor issues the sort of specific challenges that Barna and Viola do), it’s sad to me that a person with your acumen would not attach more value to the book (as other scholars have), but rather go out of his way to dismiss it without a substantive basis.

You accuse Barna and Viola of being too sure of themselves and their views on church history. That may or may not be the case. Having read and listened to them in many interviews, I would say that’s hardly the case. But after reading your review, I had to ask myself that same question of you. Since other competent scholars and historians that Viola and Barna cite and quote disagree with your analysis of church history and ecclesiology, is it possible that you’re a bit too confident in your take on those subjects?

I would encourage folks to read the book for themselves carefully, prayerfully, and critically. Do not be persuaded by a review, either by a Robert Banks, a Howard Snyder, an Alan Hirsch, a Ben Witherington, or even myself. Read it for yourself before God and test it against Scripture. And above all, follow your conscience rather than what any human being says.

There are many other matters I could speak to in your review, but these will suffice for now. I will plan on responding to your “Part 2.”

– Jon Zens

Chris E W Green said...


I know this is Ben's blog, and (perhaps) he'll see fit to respond to your comments. But I can't help from offering my own response, for what it's worth to you or others.

1. I must say your defense of the book outdoes the book itself! :-)That is quite a feat, and a commendable one in many ways.

2. Your tone remains irenic throughout, which, again is no small accomplishment when you so obviously disagree so strongly with Ben's position on these matters.

3. Your scholarship is evident, and I must say you advanced some impressive proponents of this "organic" model. In fact, your scholarship goes beyond that of the book you're championing (see my pt 1 above). Although, I think you forgot to include Emil Brunner, who has much to say on these issues that you would find congenial, I bet.

However, at the end of the day, all your hard work leaves me, at least, as unconvinced as PC did. Even if I'm more impressed with you than I was with them (Barna and Viola)!

You sum up the argument v. well. (By the way, I've read several of Viola's works - admittedly most of them not with a kind eye - and Barna's Revolution , and I think you've misunderstood them, or, at least, you've cleaned up their argument for them in such a way that what you're saying only partially overlaps with what they're saying! Perhaps what you're saying is what they want to say, but I don't think they've actually done it.)

You wrote, "In the period when the early church blossomed incredibly with divine love and spiritual power, it had no special buildings, no clergy, and no fixed ritual...

"When church edifices, clergy and fixed rituals became prominent, the visible church became focused on perpetuating itself and lost the simplicity of Christ. This is why I believe the information in PC has appeared for such a time as this, when the Body of Christ needs to recapture a NT vision regarding the 'new humanity' in Christ."

To put it bluntly, I think for all your hard work you got it wrong - historically, exegetically, theologically, and sociologically.

The "early church" - who, precisely, belongs in this grouping anyway? When and where and how and why did the change come? You aren't going to blame Constantine, are you? - didn't experience an "incredible" blossoming of divine love and spiritual power! Luke's Acts is full of stories of conflict and disappointment, of disruption and deception and disorder and discord (I'm out of control here!). Only a cursory reading of Acts could miss that. And only a myopic reading of church history - can you say von Harnack? - would miss the many powerful outbreaks of "divine love and spiritual power" in places decidedly unlike 1st century Palestine!

Also, even if there were a special dispensation of love and power experienced by the first Christians - and I don't think for a moment that there was - and even if the statement that the "early church" had no special buildings, no clergy, and no liturgy were true - and it isn't, but I don't have time right now to go through the literature! - there is no reason to think the two are "organically" (I couldn't help myself) connected! One could just as easily, and as sensibly in most instances, argue that the "early church" experienced "simply Jesus" because there were no Gentiles in the mix, or because there was no technology (tv monitors, mics, amplifiers) to speak of (an argument people do make), or because the women were kept separated from the men during the gatherings (ditto), or that there was no offical canon and no compiled New Testament text for them to read (Marcion made a similar argument to this), or because there were very, very few literate people (maybe 2 or 3 in each group), or because they were mostly poor artisans and farmers, or because they hadn't yet thought through their beliefs to the point of establishing creedal dogmas (von Harnack's argument).

I could go on, but that would be useless. You see my point (I hope!).

Unknown said...

Wow, a great read.

I just finished an 5 part interview with Barna and Viola. My summary to the interview resonates with everything you are saying.

I would love to get your thoughts regarding the summary if you have time. If not, may I have permission to quote some of your writing?


Chris E W Green said...


Another thing. What are "NT values"? Isn't that - like "traditiona values" in American politial discourse - a kind of macguffin useful only to advance one's own interpretative agenda?

Besides, what makes it a "value"? What constitutes it as a "New Testament," and not a Pauline, or Petrine, or Johannine value? Why would you not call it an ancient, Palestinian value? Or a value of patriarchial societies? Or a value of oppressed people groups?

Ben Witherington said...

To J.R. Miller-- you are most welcome to link to these posts, but if you quote from it, please do it in context.


Unknown said...

Thank you. and I will be sure and so just that my brother!

Chris Green,
I make much the same point in my summary. The book, PC, is not well done. I think the interviews and talking with Frank Viola on the phone are much more balanced. The book does not say what people want it to say.

Zack Allen said...

I liked your critique.


"Magic is when humans try to manipulate the divine for their benefit."

So does make "petitionary prayer" on the same level as "magic?"

John L said...

(Ben, is there a comment delay? I left this yesterday, but haven't seen it. Reposting.)

Ben says, "Everyone agrees that the church is a living thing and organism, not an organization."

Is that true? Of the 2 billion Christians on the planet, well over half probably see themselves as "belonging to an organization," rather than as active participants in a peer-to-peer network or “organism.”

Ben, I appreciate your interest in Barna/Viola. I've read the book and blogged an extensive review myself months ago. While I don't agree with everything they say, I can't help but think that we DO need to discuss and address our inherited ecclesial imbalances. One wonders if paid religious employment is simply a harmless cultural byproduct, or a serious departure from the heart of Christ.

My friend Len asks, "If I take a salary for the work I do for Christ, then how can I in good conscience ask someone else to make the kingdom of God their priority in all their waking hours apart from payment or ekklesial ordination?"

Today’s stark lay/clergy division is not easily found in the NT. Some have unique leadership gifts, others have unique spiritual gifts, some have both. But these should all flow together, as co-laborers, as co-servants. Barna/Viola are encouraging us to get the CEO (pastor) off the stage, get rid of the stage, and let the gifts of true community emerge organically, and in proper order. All Christ-followers should be encouraged to be active participants in the ecclesia rather than pew-sitting spectators of “religious experts.” Today's church rarely encourages this, and, at best, presents "task-oriented" roles for "laity."

The emerging idea of "missional" parallels much of the underlying purpose of Barna/Viola's book. Missional church is in the hands of the so-called “laity”; missional engagement takes place within the ordinary, everyday rhythm of life; missional rejects the dualistic thinking of seeing a dichotomy between secular and sacred (HT).

So much more to say - better said over a long conversation and tea than a blog comment! Keep up the good work.

Joel said...

It is definitely biblical for ministers to be paid. Paul makes it very clear that while he has chosen to forgo pay (at least in Corinth) that people who preach the Gospel have a right to make a living from it (1 Cor 9:14). Ben covered this in more detail in a later post.

Volkmar said...

Mr. Wintherington wrote;

And this brings me to another of their claims— that there is no evidence of church buildings before A.D. 190 when they are mentioned by Clement of Alexandria. Wrong and wrong. Here again archaeology helps. If one goes to Capernaum one can see, through the glass floor of the modern church there, the ‘house of Peter’, which was expanded into a Christian meeting place. It was no longer just a home, it was enhanced so it could be a better place of worship—house becomes church building, so to speak. How do we know this? Because of the Christian graffiti in the walls left by Christians, some of which goes back at least to the early second century, and probably back to sometime after 70 A.D. when both Jews and Christians relocated, and one of the places they went was Capernaum.


Perhaps the definition of “church building” is operative.

In Roger W. Gehring’s House Church and Mission (2004; Hendrickson) Gehring delineates between “house church”, “church house”, and “basilica” based on L. M. White’s Domus Ecclesiae—Domus Dei: Adaptation and Development in the Setting for the Early Christian Assembly (1982). (Actually, White identifies four stages of architectural development with a transitional form between “church house” and “basilica”, but three stages are sufficient for this discussion. White drew on the research of Krautheimer.)

The archeological evidence shows that churches that met in homes did so with little or no changes to the architecture of the private house.

Around 150 C.E. modifications begin to appear to private residences that allowed for their use by a larger community of Believers. Krautheimer adopts the term domus ecclesiae (“house of the church”) as a technical designation for this type of building (cf., e.g., Dura Europos, tituli Byzantis and Clementis). This trend continued with a gradual transition to ever larger buildings and halls (ca. 250-313).

Then, in 313 and beyond, with the Constantinian revolution, the Lateran basilica become the model for “church”.

For some relatively short time beyond 313 the non-basilica models continued to greater or lesser degrees.

Now, as to your statement about “the house of Peter” at Tell Hum, Gehring writes;

”…studies draw attention to the existence of local tradition about the house of Peter as early as the second half of the first century. In her pilgrimage journal (late fourth or early fifth century) Egeria tells of a church in Capernaum that was constructed from the house of Peter. This information has ben confirmed by findings of archaeological excavations beginning in 1968 and led by Virgilio C. Corbo and Stanislao Loffreda. A church building dating from the fourth century was discovered under an octagonal Byzantine basilica from the fifth century. Both structures are centered over a private house from the first century C.E. that has a number of features distinguishing it from all other buildings from the early Roman period as yet found in Capernaum. For example, fragments from ornaments and inscriptions indicate that this domestic house was used earlier than the third century by Jewish Christians for the purpose of worship. Two inscriptions with the name Peter are indication of a special relationship between this house and the apostle. Multiple restorations of the beaten lime floor in the living room of the house as early as the second half of the first century imply that the house aleady had special significance back then. (pg. 32-33)

The footprint of the private house, which was probably Peter’s, that lies under the later constructions shows that the largest room was about 5 m. square. That is about the same size as the living room in my house. A church meets in my house. When 20-25 people gather in our living room—and spill into the dinning area—it is crowded.

There is no doubt that by the middle of the second century “church houses” began to appear on the scene. Even so, a church house is a far cry from a basilica.

When you use the term “church building” in reference to Peter’s house as it was in the first and second century, that term is misleading. You are implying that the “natural” growth progression was from house to basilica, and that Believers only met in houses “because they had to”. There was certainly a sort of progression, but it was not linear, nor was the basilica stage a “natural” step in the life of the early Church. Nor did Christians have to meet in houses—actually it was a preferred form that was exemplified by Jesus (his Galilean ministry was “domus-centric”, not Synagogue focused), the 12, the 70, and Paul. The basilica was a “natural” cultural adaptation/innovation by Greco-Roman Christians who had been provided great incentives, both positive and negative, to normalize Roman governmental forms in many areas, including architecture and ecclesiology.

Thus, I would say that V&B’s position that our attitudes and practices in regard to architectural structures has been greatly influenced by pagan sources.


Chris E W Green said...


I don't think you've got your history right, but I suppose Ben will respond - perhaps ineffectively - to you on that score.

I want to ask you - and by extension all those who hold with Barna and Viola on this issue of the "paganization of Christianity" - why you assume that because something derives from "pagan" sources that it necessarily perverts and pollutes "essential" Christianity?

For instance, legal codes are of pagan origin, but that did not keep the Israelites from Israelitizing them. Knowing that the structure (if not some of the content) of the Ten Commandments derives from pagan law does not in any way demean their value as God's word.

Or for another example, the New Testament was written in Koine Greek - a pagan tongue - and the writers made extensive use of pagan literary and rhetorical devices.

I could multiply examples, but you see my point.

I don't mean to disrespect you, but I can't for the life of me understand what it is about structure (literal, conceptual, relational) that bothers you.

Unknown said...

Hey Christ, on balance Pagan Christianity does say on page xxix "...just because a practice is picked up from culture does not make it wrong in and of itself, though we must be discerning." But then, you are not the only one to miss this tree through the forest.

Chris E W Green said...


My mistake.

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting this extensive series of reviews. You and I share some of the same frustrations and I'm glad to see that not everyone is swallowing this book whole without seriously considering some of the glaring difficulties it poses as far as the historical evidence is concerned. Thanks!

Rob Harrison said...

Interesting that you quote from Simon & Garfunkel--that song is particularly apropos, I think, since it's seemed to me for a while that Barna's "just trying to keep the customer satisfied."

MDN said...

Thank you so much for your response and willingness to speak out against Pagan Christianity. Frank Viola says that he wants to open up dialogue, but his response to my email that I sent to him was, "Thank you for your very long email. Remember, man belongs to Christ, not to any man." He also sent me two links proclaiming more of his propoganda. It saddens me greatly.

I agree the problem with the church is not where or how. The Bible is never clear on how we should do it, but it is clear that we are to live and follow Christ. It is clear that we are to repent and turn from our sin. It is clear that we should love and serve others. It is clear that we are to go and make disiciples, teaching them to obey everything God has commanded through the power of Christ. This is where the Church today is missing the mark. It is a heart issue. How long before we realize this? God's blessings to you!

MDN said...

I want to add that I have been a senior pastor for 8 years. I agree that the Church needs to look a lot more like Jesus then it does. In many ways as a whole we have lost our focus on missions and holiness (living Christ-like lives) and have become more concerned about keeping up with the "Joneses" so to speak, but we do we live in a different time period and culture. Bottom line is the gathering of believers for singing, hearing the Word, prayer, and fellowship still is effective when Christ is the center!

House churches in my opinion without being attached to a mother church is dangerous due to the lack of accountability and being more separated from the larger body of Christ. I am all for meeting in homes and small groups, etc... but even in those settings you are going to have the same struggles and issues we see in what they call the "institutional" church. Sorry for being so long. We must pray. God's blessings!

Jnorm said...

Ben you said:
"I personally knew we were in for trouble even from the beginning of the 2008 edition of this book when early on we are told that Isaiah died by being sawed in two. This may be in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (an early example of Protestant hagiography complete with myths, legends, half-truths, and yes some truth), but it is not in the Bible and we don’t have any historical evidence to verify it. So much for presenting us with “just the facts Mam, just the facts.”"

I could be wrong, but I thought this came from one of the second Temple Jewish writings, what some call "pseudoepigrapha".


Unknown said...

Thanks for your critique.

You said that this critique is Part 1. Have you written any others and where would I find them.

MDN said...

My main problem with this book is that love seems to be the missing ingredient. It is foolish in my opinion for Frank Viola to say that he has history and the scriptures on his side. Obviously, we can abuse history and the scriptures for our own personal gain and belief systems. I pray that we will seek God and His Word before we follow the words of any man despite how much wisdom there appears to be.

Unknown said...

MDN, I agree that the book itself lacks in Christian charity. However, I would hasten to add that in my interview and in phone conversations with Frank, he is much more charitable than the book lets on. I don't know if it is just writing style, or a marketing scheme... everyone will have to decide that for themselves.

MDN said...

I am sure that Frank Viola is a very charitable man. I do not question his character or his motives. I believe them to be out of a pure heart. Paul also had pure motives and much zeal when he was persecuting the Church. I just don't believe he is right in his interpretation of history or the scriptures. We know that many wise scholars find difficulty in coming to the same conclusions. We can all find scholars and professors that will support our doctrines and views.

I just don't think Frank gets the hurt and division some of his words are causing. I will say that atleast it is causing the Church at some level to wake up from her slumber and no longer ignore where she has fallen short.

You are right that in the end we all have to decide for ourselves. Again, I just hope we will truly see the Lord on our knees and allow His Word to speak to us before we take what man says hook line and sinker.

Andy Rowell said...

This is #1 of Ben Witherington’s 14 part series on Frank Viola’s books Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church

1. Monday, June 30, 2008 PAGAN CHRISTIANTY: by George Barna and Frank Viola




5. Tuesday, July 08, 2008 Pagan Christianity--- Postlude

6. Saturday, July 12, 2008 Howard Snyder's Review of 'Pagan Christianity'

7. Friday, September 05, 2008 Frank Viola's Reimagining Church-- Part One

8. Saturday, September 06, 2008 Frank Viola's Reimagining Church-- Part Two

9. Sunday, September 07, 2008 Frank Viola's Reimagining Church-- Part Three

10. Monday, September 08, 2008 Reimagining Church--Part Four

11. Friday, September 12, 2008 Reimagining Church-- A Frank Response Part One [Frank Viola responds]

12. Friday, September 12, 2008 Reimagining Church-- A Frank Response Part Two [Frank Viola responds]

13. Friday, September 12, 2008 EPILOGUE TO A FRANK DISCUSSION

14. Tuesday, September 16, 2008 A FRANK CODA [Frank Viola responds]